Our Romney ewe Grace, at the ripe old age of nine, is one of the oldest sheep in our flock. As the oldest daughter of our previous flock matriarch, Zoe, she is a treasure. She loves showing the younger members of the flock the best grazing spots and where to find shade that stays dry even in a rainstorm. In her many years here, she has amassed a wealth of information, both good and bad, about our farm. She pretty much knows it all.
Having this kind of knowledge — and having the mental ability to use it, like her mother, Zoe — can be both a wonderful and a frustrating thing for me as the shepherdess. I often marvel at the wisdom she has gained over the years — and at how difficult it can be to match wits with this very knowledgeable sheep.
Take, for example, Grace’s preferred diet. Like most every sheep, Grace much prefers clean pastures. Sheep obviously do not have the knowledge or resources to use a toilet, and so Nature has them fertilizing the fields by dropping their pellets as they walk. Although we rotate pastures so that our sheep are constantly moving to fresh grazing, the lambs get the very best: the pasture that has been regrowing for weeks and has no fresh manure. The adult ewes follow them in the rotation, which means that although the adult ewes get a pretty fresh pasture, the lambs have already eaten all of the very best bits and left their manure in its place. Most of the alfalfa, clover, and wildflowers (including dandelions) are gone, leaving mostly grass, weeds, and droppings. I keep reminding the girls that it could be worse — they could be the rams, who follow the ewes and very literally get the flock leftovers!
Yet Grace is less than pleased with the pasture rotation. Over the years, she has learned to show her displeasure by leaving the field she dislikes and heading instead for our lawn and flower beds. She knows they haven’t been grazed since last fall, so they’re fresh and tasty! Most years she has also taught her daughters and sons how to leave a less-than-satisfactory field; but thankfully this year the lambs were weaned before these lessons began. Right now, it’s only Grace who is protesting in this way.
Grace’s group is currently grazing the Pond Pasture — but Grace is again not at all pleased with the options. Instead, whenever she gets hungry, she slips out via the wire fencing that runs the perimeter of the property. She has learned that all of the interior fencing is electrified, but the perimeter fencing is not. As a result, she can slip between the high-tensile wires and wander freely — and her goal is our yard. Anywhere else would be foolish and dangerous, and Grace is neither of those. She walks beside the roadway (she avoids the gravel road because cars live there) until she reaches the intersection, at which point she turns left onto our road and continues her travels in the ditch until she turns into our driveway.
Another hundred feet or so and she is in our orchard, where she can strip leaves and bark from our fruit trees or pull the leaves from our grape vines. Farther up the drive, she comes to raspberry canes and ornamental flowers, all of which are perfect for a hungry Romney sheep! Grace makes herself right at home, devouring whatever might appeal to her as I cringe and try not to think about the destruction of our yard.
Of course, Grace eventually becomes full and lonely and wants to go back to her flock. When she feels this way, she comes up to the house, walks up the six stairs to our front porch, and makes her desire known. She comes up to the windows first, to see whether I’m sitting here at the computer. If I am, she’ll call to me, looking back and forth between me and the flock, hoping I get the message. If I am otherwise detained, she will begin to wander the porch making lots of noise — verbal and with her hooves beating against the wood of the porch and the front door. It doesn’t take me long to know that Grace wants to go back to her flockmates!
I only need to go outside and wander down to the gate just beyond the driveway. Grace always follows me when she’s ready to return; there’s never a need to convince her to go. She simply walks through as I open the gate.
In fact, Grace has trained me well over the years. I have learned that if Grace is not ready to go back, there is little point in insisting. If I put her back with the flock, she will simply walk right over to the high-tensile fencing and return to our yard. No, I must wait for Grace to want to go home — and then she just might stay put for a bit.
There is really no good solution to this standoff except to either provide her with better grazing or keep putting her back when she is ready — or to get rid of her, which at her age would be terribly unkind. As a result, after the final round of weaning, we will likely move Grace in with the lambs again. Her lambs will have been weaned for weeks, and her milk has dried up. In among the lambs, she will have the best grazing we have to offer — and she can teach the lambs all of the many interesting things that she knows. I only hope that one of them isn’t which fences are not electrified. If she begins to teach them that, we’ll have to rethink our solution!